I’ve had some interesting conversations with people about the art of writing queries to literary agents, so I thought I’d summarize what I’ve learned. Not that I’m an expert since I haven’t landed an agent yet. But the contemporary advice at Query Shark and the “Query Letter Hell” sub-board of Absolute Write Water Cooler have been invaluable to me so far.
A query letter, which is a solicitation to a literary agent asking them to read your manuscript, is typically structured as follows:
- Optional opening. Mention any specific referrals you received from an industry professional the agent would respect. So-and-so acquisitions editor at the NY Pitch Conference asked to read my manuscript. Would you submit it for me? (Yeah, you can bet this is going into my current template.) I’ve seen some folks open with, “I saw on Publishersmarketplace.com that you’re representing XYZ genre,” but that doesn’t seem very compelling to me. Of course the agent will assume you’ve read their submission guidelines. Don’t waste time pointing out the obvious.
- Mini-synopsis. 150-200 words. This is by far the hardest thing to write and what will put you through thirty drafts of the letter. How to compress a 100K-word novel into this? That’s why it’s called suck-opsis, baby. By critiquing others’ letters on Absolute Write, I’ve learned that it’s death to say anything vague. You gotta be specific and compelling. Think of this as a short story version of your novel. You wouldn’t say anything confusing in a short story, now would you? Use active, short sentences, in present tense. Structure the synopsis like this:
- Identify the protagonist. Not just the name: gimmie a clue who/what/where/when this is. This is like the “ordinary world” portion of your Joseph Campbell hero’s myth.
- Describe the protagonist’s dramatic goal arising from his predicament. You can cover this and the previous point in two sentences. Today’s draft of my query opens with, “Thomas Dillion’s son is missing. Walter, 4, was playing in the yard of their Virginia home when Thomas turned his back.” (Notice I say that’s today’s draft. I’ll find a way to screw it all up by tomorrow.)
- Name a few obstacles the protagonist will encounter on the way to that goal. Implicit in this part is a description of the antagonist (the source of the obstacles). Since my manuscript is an alternate world fantasy novel, there’s an emphasis on the antagonist’s bad-assedry and magic system.
- End with a cliffhanger by describing what’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve his goal. This is commonly structured as an either/or choice. Mine is, “Thomas must decide what’s more important: finding his son, or saving his world.”
- Housekeeping details (i.e., title, word count, genre, and comparables), come after the mini-synopsis. The logic is that those details, while important, aren’t the most important things in your letter. I know it’s strange, but that’s the way they do it now. Don’t worry about the agent missing this part, because I’ve found a lot of them also want this info loaded into the emailed query letter’s subject line, following their specific format. And then sometimes they want it all in their online submission form, which makes this concern moot. This is also where you’d say that this novel is the first in a proposed series. Oh, and don’t use the word complete, as in, “My novel is complete at 103,000 words.” Well, no shit. If it’s not complete, you shouldn’t be sending queries out. How about, “ANGELA’S ASHES (103,000 words) is a . . .”
- Bio. If you’re published by a traditional (i.e., non-vanity) press or have won an award, put it here. If this is your first novel, say, “This is my first novel,” and move on. No one cares if you have a PhD in astrophysics because it’s off-topic. The only exception is if you’re super famous, because then you have a built-in fan base.
As far as I can tell, the only main difference between a query, which is written, and a pitch, which is delivered orally in person, is that the housekeeping details come first. Maybe this was just a convention of this specific pitch program, but I was expected to start off with all those details and give the person a chance to write them down before I launched into my mini-synopsis. Oh, and by God, have your in-person sales pitch memorized. But I ranted about that in the last blog post.
Your mileage my vary, of course. I hope this helps writers who are entering the game. And if you have any thoughts or contrary advice, please post them in the comments below. I love talking shop.